environment/nature


I am always suspicious of invocations of the phrase “human nature.”  It is not necessarily because I think there is no such thing, it’s simply that it is typically invoked with little consideration of the vastly diverse physical, cultural, and physical-cultural contexts in which human beings find themselves, and have found themselves.  This 3 1/2 minute introduction to a BBC special, Human Planet, sent in by (my mom) Kay West, illustrates some of this diversity.  While I’m a little anxious about the exotification that the clip might include (especially of “the primitive”), I still think it does a wonderful job of hinting at the wildly different contexts in which humans live:

Also, this (Gwen, do not watch!):

Found at Blame it on the Voices.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Yesterday, I was at the grocery store in the checkout line, when I saw a Disney book about how Tinkerbell and her fairy friends “Nature’s Little Helpers.”  Intended to interest small children in being environmentally conscious, the fairies, all female, help nature go about its daily tasks.  The connection to the nymphs of Greek mythology at once is evident.  Nymphs were essentially fairies that embodied parts of nature: water, trees, etc. They were almost always female, and often played the role of temptress to the male gods.  These Disney fairies play on the same idea; they tend to nature and are connected with nature because of their being female.

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Why is this a problem?  First, the book connects women to nature on the basis of biology, the idea that women are naturally nurturing.  This suggests that only women can really take care of nature, because they are better suited for it than men.  Second, by linking women and nature, they suggest that being Green is ‘girly,’ when in fact being Green should be gender-neutral.

“Nature’s Little Helpers” ties women and nature together in harmful ways: it assumes that women are caretakers of nature because of an inherent nurturing ability and it feminizes the teaching of environmental studies, even interest in nature.  I have no doubt that Disney intended for this book to up its Green profile, but its message is as harmful as the Disney princess line. We should be teaching children about nature without gendering the process.

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Lisa Seyfried is recent graduate of the George Washington University Women’s Studies Master’s Program.  Her interest is in the intersection of women and the environment, and generally helping the world to become a more just and sustainable place.  She is also a blogger at Silence is Complicit.

If you would like to write a post for Sociological Images, please see our Guidelines for Guest Bloggers.

Earlier this month, The New York Times and Foreign Policy both reported on the United Nations population forecast for the next 100 years. According to the report, rather than hitting 9 billion at mid-century and then leveling off, the world’s population is likely to climb to 10 million and keep going. The cause: a fertility boom in the global south –– Africa, Asia, Latin America. Such growth, according to the report, if unchecked, will have dire consequences on a world already facing shortages of food, available water and other life-giving resources.

In reporting the story, both the Times and Foreign Policy used pictures of women and their children, but the way they used the pictures was somewhat chilling. For example, the Times ran a photo of several women of color under the heading: “Coming to a Planet Near You: 3 Billion More Mouths to Feed.”

Additionally, Foreign Policy ran a photo under the sub-headline: “Why ignoring family planning overseas was the worst foreign-policy mistake of the century.” It featured a picture of dark-skinned women with a child.

These photos, paired with the headlines and the dire predictions in the stories of what’s to come should the global south’s fertility boom remain unchecked, tap into anxieties about women’s bodies and link the coming doom and gloom directly to them. The Times headline, warning of “3 billion more mouths to feed,” is combined with seven new mothers in Manila; positioned in a long row, they crowd the frame of the photograph as they are imagined to crowd the planet.  While the Foreign Policy sub-headline inspires fear, saying that allowing the burgeoning birth rate was  the “worst… mistake of the century.”  Its photo features two women and a child in the foreground.  In both cases the focus on women makes it seem as if men have no role in reproduction at all.

Whether they meant it or not, such a juxtaposition does little more than demonize women –– particularly poor women from developing countries –– as directly responsible for the problem of overpopulation and its solution. While the commentaries herald funding for family planning and education –- both great ideas –– they contain no conversation about economic systems that create or maintain poverty in certain parts of the world; how patriarchy and systems of male-centered power prevent women from being able to control their own reproduction; and how international development money too often comes with strings attached that restrict government resources for education and health care, especially for women, who too often are the ones who bear the hardest brunt of poverty and the greatest social opprobrium.

Here’s what an alternative might look like:  GOOD Magazine discussed the U.N. report and the coming population boom. Its focus: How responsible living in the United States and other wealthy countries can help ensure food for all. The photo that ran with the commentary: a photo of the planet Earth.

Barbara Yuki Schwartz is a doctoral student in the Theology, History and Ethics program at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill.  She studies postcolonial and poststruturalist theory, political theory and theology, trauma studies, and is interested in how body, community and psychic life intersect and influence theology and liturgy. She blogs regularly at Dialogic Magazine.

The phrase “environmental racism” was coined to draw attention to the ways in which exposure to environmental toxins like air pollution and lead is not even across cities and states, but tends to be higher in low income neighborhoods — especially those that are disproportionately Black and Latino — ones that are also more likely than others to be home to garbage dumps, sewage treatment plants, and power plants.  As a result, poor children and children of color are more likely to suffer the consequences of environmental pollution, like asthma and lead poisoning.

Prevention efforts, however, tend to focus on parents’ responsibility for protecting their children from these threats instead of the state or city’s failure to keep all neighborhoods equally safe. For example, even though it’s illegal for landlords to rent out a house or apartment with lead paint, poisoning prevention efforts tend to focus on educating parents.  I thought of this tendency to blame the victim when I noticed a set of billboards going up in my neighborhood in Los Angeles, Highland Park.  Meant to encourage parents not to smoke, they read (in English and in Spanish): “I gave you love, you gave me asthma.”

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Highland Park is a low-income neighborhood.  And given what we know about the inclination for cities to tolerate environmentally harmful conditions in low income neighborhoods, this seems to me a particularly nasty message to send.  It erases the role of the city in protecting children and places 100% of the blame on parents (“you gave me asthma”), and then it twists the knife (“I gave you love”). Even if they are smokers, poor parents can only do so much to protect their children from things that the city is all-to-comfortable letting slide.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

My great-grandma was born in 1914 and lived until 2005, so she witnessed an enormous amount of technological and cultural change during her life. I asked her once what single thing she found most impressive or was most grateful had been invented. She answered, without hesitation, “the electric washing machine.” As the mother of 7 children with a husband who did not do housework, laundry had been the bane of her existence. Getting a washing machine that had a hand-powered wringer helped, but it was still exhausting. The way she saw it, getting an electric washing machine changed her life. Her fear of ever again having to do laundry by hand with a washboard was so great that she kept the hand-crank-powered washer next to her electric one until the early 1990s, just in case.

In this TED clip, “Hans Rosling and the Magic Washing Machine,” sent in by Dmitriy T.M., Rosling discusses the ethical problems involved in efforts to combat climate change that rest primarily on telling individuals in developing nations that because we need to use less energy globally, they just can’t have the same appliances and conveniences, like electric washing machines, that those of us living in (post-) industrialized nations do:

Transcript after the jump.

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If you are alive these days, and not already part of the undead masses yourself, you probably have noticed a staggering increase of zombie references in film, television, pop culture, videogames and the internet.

For instance, the big screen and small screen have both hosted a plethora of zombie films, e.g., 28 Days Later (2002), Shaun of the Dead (2004), and I Am Legend (2007). On television, we have seen the recent success of AMC’s The Walking Dead. And if you are on a college campus, you have probably seen undergraduates playing “Zombies Vs. Humans,” a game of tag in which “human” players must defend against the horde of “zombie” players by “stunning” them with Nerf weapons and tube socks. In videogames, we have seen the success of the Resident Evil franchise, Left 4 Dead, and Dead Rising. Finally, the internet is awash with zombie culture. From viral videos of penitentiary inmates dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” to post-apocalyptic zombie societies, fansites, and blogs.

But what is the zombie and where does it come from?

What makes the zombie unique from other movie monsters is its unique place of origin. Whereas Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolfman all have ties to the Gothic literary tradition, the zombie stands apart in having a relatively recent (and proximal) origin. Theorists of zombie culture (such as Kyle Bishop or Jamie Russell), attribute the origin of the zombie to Haitian folklore and the hybrid religion of voodoo. But the zombie didn’t make its away into American culture until the 1920s and 30s, when sensationalist travel narratives were popular with Western readers. Specifically, W.B. Seabrook’s book The Magic Island, is often credited as the first popular text to describe the Haitian zombie. Additionally, the work of Zora Neale Hurston (specifically her 1937 book Tell My Horse) explores the folklore surrounding the zombie in Haitian mythology.

(Still from I Walked with a Zombie, 1943)

With the development of the motion picture, the zombie became a staple of horror, and a popular movie monster. The zombies of White Zombie (1932), Revolt of the Zombies (1936), King of the Zombies (1941), and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), however, were not the cannibalistic creatures we now know. These zombies were people put under a spell, the spell of voodoo and mystical tradition. In these films, the true terror is not be being killed by zombies, but of becoming a zombie oneself.

Bela Lugosi as ‘Murder’ Legendre, the mad scientist and his zombie slave:

 

What all these films have in common is their depiction of Voodoo and Haitian culture more generally as dangerous, menacing, and superstitious. Those who study colonial history note that the messages contained in these films present stereotyped versions of Haitian culture aimed largely at satisfying a predominantly white audience. Many of these films also contain an all white cast, with several members in blackface serving as comedic relief for the more “serious” scenes.

It’s interesting to see how the zombie has morphed into the cannibalistic creatures we now know. While the original zombie is a powerful metaphor for fears of the non-white Other and reverse colonization, the contemporary zombie largely reflects contemporary fears of loss of individuality, the excesses of consumer capitalism, environmental degradation, the excesses of science and technology, and fears of global terrorism (especially more recent renditions of the zombie post-9/11).

For instance, George A. Romero’s famous Night of the Living Dead (1968), the first film to feature the flesh-eating zombie, is often remarked as a not-so-subtle allegory to the Civil Rights Era and the militant violence perpetuated by Southern states against the Black protestors, as well as a critique of the Vietnam War. Romero himself has stated that he wanted to draw attention to the war through the images of violence contained in the film.

Cannibal zombies in Night of the Living Dead (1968):

Similarly, the Italian zombie horror film Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974) reflects fears of environmental degradation and pollution. In this film, the zombie epidemic is caused by an experimental pest-control machine, which sends radio waves into the ground. Although it solves the local pest problem for farmers, it also reanimates the dead in a nearby cemetery.

Zombie consumers in Romero’s second zombie flick Dawn of the Dead (1978):

Later zombies are used to symbolize the excesses of capitalism and militarism, respectively.  For example, in 28 Weeks Later (2007), we see the decay of social structures across the globe, as institutions that are supposed to protect us inevitably fail to do their job.  In this scene, protagonists attempt to escape the city just before the military firebombs it:

As we can see, the zombie has a unique cultural history and serves as a powerful metaphor for social anxieties. This movie monster might have come out of the Caribbean, but it became a powerful representation of modern fears when it met the silver screen. Perhaps the current failure of global social structures (global terrorism, environmental catastrophes, and the current economic downturn) has prompted the most recent “Zombie Renaissance.” Or maybe we are just gluttons for the “everyman” tales contained in each rendition of the zombie apocalypse, a point made by SocProf several months back. I do not know what the future holds, but one thing is certain: the zombie will continue to haunt us from beyond the grave.

David Paul Strohecker is getting his PhD in Sociology at the University of Maryland. He studies cultural sociology, theory, and intersectionality. He is currently working on a larger project about the cultural history of the zombie in film.


Mark Fiore suggests that the celebration of Valentine’s Day is, um, complicated:

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Dmitriy T.M. sent in a link to a 13-minute video in which Van Jones discusses the problems with patting ourselves on the back too much every time we put a plastic bottle in the recycle bin instead of the trash, and the need to recognize the link between environmental concerns and other social issues:

Also see our posts on the race between energy efficiency and consumption, exposure to environmental toxins and social class, race and exposure to toxic-release facilities, reframing the environmental movement, tracking garbage in the ocean, mountains of waste waiting to be recycled, framing anti-immigration as pro-environment, and conspicuous environmentalism.

Full transcript after the jump, thanks to thewhatifgirl.

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